2 guilty in shooting of undercover police officer

Two men pleaded guilty today to charges related to an incident in which an undercover police officer was shot and wounded during an armed robbery attempt outside a Marshall’s store in Garfield last year.

Melvin Guzman

Melvin Guzman

Melvin Guzman, 20, of Garfield, pleaded guilty to a charge of first-degree attempted robbery before Superior Court Judge Susan J. Steele in Bergen County.  Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Guzman be sentenced to eight years in state prison, nearly seven of which must be served without possibility of parole.

Patrick Morel, 23, of Clifton, also pleaded guilty to a charge of first-degree attempted robbery, and the state also will recommend that Morel be sentenced to eight years in years in state prison, including nearly seven years without possibility of parole.

Patrick Morel

Patrick Morel

The charges were contained in a state grand jury indictment returned on April 22, 2015.  Deputy Attorney General Anthony P. Torntore took the guilty pleas for the Division of Criminal Justice.  Sentencing for the two defendants is scheduled for Feb. 11.

A third defendant, Rafael Vasquez, 27, of Passaic, the alleged gunman, faces first-degree charges of attempted murder and attempted robbery, as well as second-degree weapons offenses and a second-degree conspiracy charge.

Rafael Vasquez

Rafael Vasquez

The charges against Vasquez are pending, and he is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

First-degree charges carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison, including a period of parole ineligibility equal to 85 percent of the sentence imposed.

“The alleged gunman in this shooting continues to face charges including attempted murder,” said Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman. “We’ll make sure that everyone responsible faces stern punishment for this violent incident in which a police officer was nearly killed.”

“These guilty pleas will ensure that both of these men serve lengthy prison sentences for their roles in this violent robbery, in which an undercover police officer was shot,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We’re coming down hard on gun violence in New Jersey.”

In pleading guilty, Guzman and Morel admitted their roles in the attempted robbery and shooting, which occurred during a buy-bust operation conducted by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office Narcotics Task Force.  An undercover officer working for the task force arranged to buy marijuana from Guzman on April 22, 2014 outside a Marshall’s store in Garfield.

The defendants had made plans to rob the undercover officer, bringing a handgun and a bag of oregano, instead of marijuana. Guzman and Vasquez were inside in a car driven by Morel when the officer arrived about 1:30 p.m.

Guzman got out of Morel’s car and got into the passenger seat of the undercover officer’s car.  Shortly afterward, however, Vasquez allegedly exited the back seat of Morel’s vehicle, approached the driver’s side of the undercover officer’s car and brandished a .380-caliber handgun, ordering the officer to give him all of his money.

The undercover officer and Vasquez got into a struggle as members of the task force converged on the scene, identifying themselves as police officers.  During the struggle, Vasquez allegedly shot the undercover officer in the hip and ankle.  Vasquez then allegedly pointed his gun at the approaching officers while attempting to flee.

Two task force officers fired their guns, wounding Vasquez in the left shoulder, ear, and hip.

Vasquez and Guzman were arrested at the scene.  Morel fled in his vehicle and was later apprehended on the Garden State Parkway without incident.

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